One October morning in 2016, Brandon Simmons walked up to the Champions Center on the University of Colorado Boulder campus wielding a 31-inch machete.
He approached the building and scribbled a bevy of words on car windows—”murder,” “disrespect,” “cursing thy father’s name,” “judgment,” The Boulder Daily Camera reported. Simmons began climbing the stairs of the arena. When he reached the door to the fifth floor, which can be accessed only by key card, he encountered Officer Clay Austin of the CU Boulder Police Department and Officer Jason Connor of the Boulder Police Department.
The officers ordered Simmons to drop his weapon. When he did not comply, the officers opened fire. They fired 15 shots. Simmons was the third person killed by Boulder Police in 2016.
“Our job is to stop the threat, whatever means that takes,” said Scott Pribble, a spokesperson for the CU Boulder Police Department. “We prefer that it doesn’t involve an officer firing their weapon. We prefer that when we encounter that person, that they comply with orders and surrender their weapon. That’s not what happened that day.”
Neither deputy involved was available for an interview about the incident.
Pribble said Simmons moved at officers in an “attacking, menacing fashion.” This is when officers must make the split-second decision to handle the threat in a deadly manner.
Police retrieved two ripped-up letters from Simmons’ kitchen trash that hinted at a recent breakup and a potentially abusive relationship. In addition, the autopsy had evidence of THC and amphetamines in his blood.
Data indicate that the Simmons case is one of many examples of police firing weapons at individuals suffering from a mental health crises and addiction, according to Boulder District Attorney Stanley Garnett.
“When there’s a police shooting it’s often in a vacuum,” said Tampa Bay Times reporter Ben Montgomery. “We don’t know how to respond to it because we have this sense of maybe injustice, especially the more controversial shootings, but we don’t have the numbers to be able to offer context for these shootings, so that was the mission.”
From 2009 to 2014, The Tampa Bay Times found that 827 people in Florida were shot by police.
The Times discovered 246 of the 827 people shot showed signs of mental instability — 85 of those were placed in a category called “Suicide by Cop.”
Rebecca Stincelli, author of Suicide by Cop: Victims from BOTH Sides of the Badge, said “suicide by cop,’ refers to instances when a suicidal subject acts in a deliberately life-threatening manner, provoking police officers to respond with deadly force.
The Minnesota Star Tribune wrote a story about the people who died after an encounter with law enforcement after 2000. They found that 68 of the 155 cases —45 percent — had history of mental illness or were having a mental health crisis at the time of the incident.
“Most people that choose suicide by cop are under huge emotional distress; they want to die they just can’t pull the trigger themselves, but the officer doesn’t know that until after the event. They don’t know that the person was someone who was crying out for help,” Stincelli said. “That is the most tragic part of all.”
In a report by Kris Mohandie, Ph.D., on suicide-by-cop in officer-involved shootings found that 36 percent of the 707 research subjects were classified as suicide-by-cop. Most commonly, those involved were white males, with an average age of 35. In 62 percent of suicides-by-cop, the subject had a confirmed history of mental health issues.
Stincelli estimated that on average 12-24 percent of officer-involved shootings are suicide-by-cop. Data shows that mental health plays a prominent role in officer-involved shootings, but data on these instances is scarce.
In fact, a 2015 Colorado report required police agencies to send data on their officer-involved shootings, but it did not collect information on the subject’s mental health. The report did collect information about a variety of other topics, ranging from ethnicity of the victim to his or her sexual orientation.
Overall, officer-involved shootings are on the rise statewide. The Colorado Department of Public Safety reported that the number of officer-involved shootings jumped from 27 in 2011 to 52 in 2015. And the percentage of deaths in officer-involved shootings in the first half of 2016 was higher than any previous year.
Already, Boulder County has seen three officer-involved shootings in 2016 compared to eight over the five-year period between 2010 and 2015, according to DPS data.
Fort Collins Police also recorded eight officer-involved shootings during the five-year period. Other departments in urban locations with more than double the population, like Denver and Aurora, documented 40 and 24 officer-involved shootings during the five year period.
Stincelli said the rise in officer-involved shootings means law enforcement agencies should concentrate on mental health. She noted the general public should open a dialogue about suicide to end the stigma and increase the conversation around mental health.
“Suicide is a taboo subject to begin with,” she said. “I say talk about it. And then once we cross that hurdle, now let’s talk about suicide by cop.”
Boulder County Sheriff’s Office began a partnership with Mental Health Partners and created EDGE (Early Division Get Engaged) in 2014 to help deescalate situations involving individuals in a mental health crisis before they face arrest.
“Police are absolute experts in de-escalation,” said Charlie Davis, Program Director at EDGE. “Sometimes we’re involved in those [de-escalation situations], but most of the time it’s all de-escalated before the crisis worker gets there, for safety reasons. The cops have scaled it down to where we can now to get to the mental health behind that.”
Officer participation in the program is completely voluntary. On-call clinicians reach out to people with behavioral health issues and those diagnosed with mental illness, substance abuse, or any combination of the three, said Boulder Police Department’s Public Information Officer–Shannon Cordingly.
Officers are encouraged to call on EDGE any time they are dealing with a person who may be suffering from mental health or substance abuse issues. Clinicians work both in an office at the police department, and often ride with officers during their shifts, Cordingly said.
“We all know there are too many mentally ill folks in jail. So our goal was to try and keep them out of jail,” Davis said. He said that within all four law enforcement departments with which he has worked with, officers estimate that 70 to 90 percent of calls that police receive involve behavioral health to some extent.
Boulder Police Department, Longmont Police Department, and Boulder County Sheriff’s Department worked together to make mental health clinicians available to police to help solve these problems. Davis thinks the essentials are having a good relationship with the officers, and that police see the value the services have to their community.
Davis said EDGE has two main goals. First, to assist law enforcement with mental health issues on the job. Second, to attempt to educate the community about the mental health challenges facing law enforcement on the job.
“The police do not have the training, the resources, or the bandwidth to do their job and my job too,” Davis said. “And yet that’s what they’re doing and always have,” said Davis. What EDGE does is make mental health clinicians available to police to help solve these problems.
In addition, peer counselors work alongside officers and clinicians to offer a different kind of help for mental health patients. Peers have first-hand, personal experience with mental health or substance use that allows them to speak to patients in a different manner.
Davis says it can be beneficial to have an alternative to police. EDGE professionals are a tool to help cops handle the situation more effectively. “Officers overwhelmingly who have worked with this program are in favor of keeping it,” said Davis.
“I believe that this is going to happen all over the country, all over the world. I believe it has to happen,” Davis said. “I think the value in it is recognizing that law enforcement is mental health services.”